Yesterday an Obama administration-convened task force released what the New York Times called “perhaps the most elaborate survey of decay conducted in any large America[n] city,” detailing the pervasiveness of perceived blight in the Motor City. The Detroit Blight Removal Task Force surveyed 377,603 properties, and recommended 40,077 for demolition, 38,429 for further review. Task force leader Dan Gilbert set the stakes somewhat colorfully, saying, “Blight sucks the soul out of anyone who gets near it.” In order to fully follow the task force’s clear-cutting recommendations, Detroit would need to spend at least $850 million, almost twice the $450 million the city has already planned to spend on blight.
The Times story, and its accompanying infographics, follow a traditional script in discussing Detroit: staggering back before the enormity of the city’s failure, peering in at the ruin porn lining the city’s streets. Yet even as the city has gone bankrupt, has been placed in the hands of an appointed manager, and now faces the prospect of spending enormous sums it doesn’t have just to tear down tens of thousands of its properties, there are local kernels of hope blossoming out of the void.
In a recent discussion on the EconTalk podcast, Charles Marohn of Strong Towns pushed back against the idea of Detroit as pure desolation:
If you go right now, today, to the core of Detroit, it’s actually one of the most exciting places in the world. And largely because of the absence of government. There’s nobody there telling people: You can’t open this business, or, You have to get a permit to do that or inspections to do this. There are very few barriers for young people to start a business and get things going.
Likewise, the famed New Urbanist architect and urban planner Andrés Duany wrote earlier this year that “Detroit is going to be the next ‘Brooklyn.’ Perhaps not all of Detroit. But certainly a portion of the city has the potential to become as rich and thriving as New York’s trendiest borough.”
How could Detroit, poster child for post-industrial urban decay and dysfunctional governance possibly be characterized as “one of the most exciting places in the world,” or seen as holding—even in part—the potential to rival “New York’s trendiest borough”? Precisely because the city’s governance has collapsed in on itself, and the area is so incredibly cheap. As Duany recounts,
Elsewhere, over the last three decades, there has arisen a regulatory regime so comprehensive that it is impossible even to make a cookie for sale without a certified kitchen, an accessible bathroom, and constant inspections. Almost everywhere else, the slack that once allowed revitalization to evolve organically has been exterminated by bureaucracies.
Because of its bankruptcy, Detroit simply doesn’t have the bureaucratic capacity to enforce its own accumulated tangle of once well-intentioned zoning codes, land-use regulations, and other assortments of red tape. And because the city has been so depressed, for so long, the institutional and financial barriers to entry are remarkably low. As Marohn mentions, “there aren’t the large corporations that are competing and kind of raising up the initial cost of entry. So downtown–like the very core of Detroit–has some really fascinating things going on right now in terms of business startup and economics.” Duany agrees: “Detroit is now the city where the risk-oblivious millennials can get things done.”
Good planning can be important in constructing neighborhoods that give communities the best chance to grow and develop. But sometimes it can be even more important to simply stop suffocating experimentation. As the city, its bankruptcy judge, and the Obama administration’s task force work on large scale efforts to turn the town around once more, Detroit’s best chance at a rebound may come from young, too-dumb-to-know-better millennials flocking to fill the vacuum, and entrepreneurial spirits taking advantage of the opportunity.